OER Response to the Benezra Letter is Out…

Visit Rock Talk to see the OER response just in from Sally Rockey and Lawrence Tabak to the petition to re-institute the A2…. If you remember the petition was initiated by one Robert Benezra, signed by about a zillion scientists, and submitted to Tony Scarpa on February 20, 2011. I previously posted the original text of the petition here, and it was my impression that there was some behind-the-scenes gnashing of teeth that the petition was put up on blogs and created some controversy.

First, I love that the ‘official’ response appears on a blog before those of us that signed the petition even got an email, snail mail, or phone call about it. I suppose that speaks to the acceptance or the usefulness of this medium for communication- even among scientists. But I’m a big believer in the usefulness of blogging anyway- so I’m delighted by this.

Second, signers of the petition aren’t going to like Dr. Rockey and Dr. Tabak’s reply much, which- in a nutshell- is that the policy to eliminate the A2 submission has worked, more A0s are being funded while the number of A1s funded has stayed level, and more new investigators are being funded with shorter wait times than before. And the post is accompanied by actual data. Nice. I’ll recap.  In Figure 1 the data show that the percentage of R01s awarded as A0s has increased sharply as the A2 has now been eliminated, and not surprisingly, the time to award has fallen (Figure 3). In Figure 2, we see that a bunch more new investigators are being funded.

That’s all good- but it still leaves me flat. I think that several of us are concerned that there are some (maybe many) A1 proposals that are highly meritorious that are not being funded. Or, put another way, I think some of us are concerned that it is impossible to tell the difference between one ‘highly meritorious’ proposal and another- and that might mean that equally meritorious proposals might end up on opposite sides of the funding line.

So… I wonder…can someone tell me (er… this means you OER)  how many A1 proposals there are in the 8-15th percentiles, that are getting dumped off the edge of the A1 cliff in each round of review every year? And if we agree that we (as reviewers) can’t really tell the difference between a grant that is in the 8th percentile and a grant that is in the 10th percentile as A1s, how are we going to reconcile this with all the meritocracy talk that is flying around out there- and get right to the heart of that ugly truth that we all know but Rockey says out loud (to echo C PP and Drugmonkey):

There is little doubt that some great science is not being funded because pay lines are decreasing, regardless of the number of permitted resubmissions. Restoring A2 applications will not change that picture and will increase the time and effort required for writing additional resubmissions. (emphasis mine)


So here is the deal petition-signers, you are all creative people- what are we as a community going to do about this? What can we do to promote an increase the dollars that flow to keep our first in the world research system afloat? Who is going to lead, who is going to coordinate, who is going to call and do the grass-roots work, who is going to lobby? We weren’t too busy to sign a petition and OER wasn’t to busy to answer- but this is going to take more than that.

And for the love of God don’t tell me you are too busy- the very survival of the human infrastructure that does biomedical and basic science research in this country depends on you.


10 thoughts on “OER Response to the Benezra Letter is Out…

  1. The bottom line is that there are only so many competing awards that can be funded, due to budget constraints. The only question is which applications get funded. For every A2 that now gets funded, it means there is an A0 or an A1 that *doesn’t* get funded. And for every A2 that doesn’t get funded, it’s another A0 or A1 that *does* get funded.

    So the Benezra argument that great science goes unfunded without the availability of A2s that *would* be funded if A2s were available is arithmetically incoherent, because it requires that there then be *other* great science that must go unfunded that otherwise wouldn’t have. This follows inexorably from the fixed number of awards that can be made.

    The only non-delusional interpretation of the Benezra critique is that the real underlying complaint is about *which* applications are being funded and *who* the principal investigators are that have submitted them. I suppose it is possible to think of yourself as an outstanding scientist doing groundbreaking high-impact research, but for some reason to be at a competitive disadvantage compared to your peers in a regime where *all* grants are limited to a single resubmission.

  2. Pingback: Nature on Benezra and St Noonan | DrugMonkey

  3. Girlpostdoc- The A0 submission is the first submission of a grant proposal, so these are by definition new submissions. The A1 is the first re-submission of the revised proposal (but really the second submission of grant). The A2 is the second re-submission of the revised proposal (so now that is really the third submission).

    I have no idea what the A stands for.

    That’s probably clear as mud.

  4. Amended. “A0” doesn’t really exist though. Just a handy shortcut for “original submission”

  5. And as further info, the NIH identifies incoming submissions with an identifying code, the A1 is part of that code. Example: 1R01 MH123456-01 is the first competing submission (for a competing continuation the first digit would be 2), of an R01 type app, routed to niMH for funding. The six digit code is just sequential ID for that institute. The -01 indicates it is for the first year of funding (a Type 2 or competing continuation would have -06, -11, etc depending how many prior years of support there have been). An amended app would have the same code as the original save that it would end -01A1, -06A1, etc

  6. The point is that the claim of a meritocracy is ludicrous if ANY criteria other than scientific merit are used in making awards.

    If we posit that reviews provide helpful comments (not always the case, and I’m sure many cynics will say not often the case…) then by addressing these concerns, proposals should get STRONGER over time. The logical conclusion for anyone who believes that peer review works is thus that we need MORE A2s not less… or even A3s etc. Why should a better grant get triaged simply because someone has taken the time to improve it over several cycles, especially if it is better than an A0 that has just been slapped together? It should be THE SCORE, people and that’s it…

    This is all about decreasing reviewing burden, at the cost of quality. If they are hard up for reviewing, make acceptance of an NIH award contingent on service on study sections. That is not the case now, lots of NIH funded researchers do not serve. Rather, the bigshots hold seats and appoint their cronies to hang on to the power, insight, and prestige such assignments confer. Or here’s another one: insist that institutions that accept these huge indirects make their faculty available for reviewing: simply make it part of faculty duties at places that wish to suckle on the NIH.

    I suspect is has something to do with reviewers seeing the same clearly never-to-be-funded grants in several cycles and saying – geez, not this one again…what waste of everyone’s time. But the answer is not to adopt a blanket no-A2 policy. Rather there should be a cutoff value for resubmission… those proposals that are not within reach should be not allowed to be resubmitted, while those that are within some realistic distance of the payline should. This should apply even to A0s… if you’re at 47%, you’re not going to make it no matter how many cycles you resubmit. On the other hand, an A1 within 10% of the payline stands a realistic chance. This could even be a sliding scale: within 20% on A0, within 15% on A1, 10% on A2 and higher… Eventually, if there are fundamental problems that make the proposal unfundable, you will get dinged on “unresponsive to reviewer’s concerns” and the score will drop and that will be it. In the final analysis, if the study section does not want to see a proposal again, they should send that message via an appropriately poor score, and not by a near-miss score simply running out the clock.

  7. I received a 14% on the A1 of my R01 competitive renewal but the payline is 11%. I have gathered a lot of advice and the consensus is that I put back in a pared down version of the unfunded R01 as an R21. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around rationale and again, after talking it over with colleagues, it goes something like this:

    Submitting a failed R01 as an R21 is an expedient, possibly unwittingly provided by NIH, which, if the R21 is funded, provides 2 years of bridge funding for one to develop that new angle that the NIH requires in order for the so-called new R01 not to be kicked back as an unallowable resubmission.

    I would like to hear ya’lls views. Personally it doesn’t seem logical for NIH to allow this, but what do I know??

  8. Pingback: Life in No-A2ville | DrugMonkey

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